Letter to Brian Nichols, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Peter Natiello, Acting Assistant Administrator for the Latin American and Carribean Bureau - Torres, Markey, Castro, and McGovern Request State Department Protections for Central America Civil Society Organizations


Dear Assistant Secretary Nichols and Acting Assistant Administrator Natiello:

We are writing to draw attention to the concerning operating environment for civil society
organizations (CSOs) in Central America. We applaud the Biden-Harris administration's
emphasis on partnering with civil society in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to promote
human rights, anti-corruption, democracy, and sustainable development within the region and
USAID's stated commitment to direct 25% of U.S. government assistance to local development
partners over the next four years.1 However, we are concerned that recent proliferation of
legislation restricting legitimate activities of civil society will directly impede the ability of the
United States government, and the broader international community, to partner with civil society
safely and effectively to conduct legitimate operations.

Specifically, we are concerned that legislation proposed or enacted in El Salvador, Guatemala,
and Honduras will impact our efforts to promote community-led development and support a
more democratic, prosperous region; this legislation should be considered an obstacle to our
bilateral cooperation. Within the Northern Triangle region, civil society is often our most trusted
partner. The United States must elevate amending or repealing harmful legislation restricting
legitimate civil society activity as a key bilateral and regional policy priority while
simultaneously continuing to partner with and protect CSOs carrying out critical work.

In Guatemala, civil society organizations have begun to feel the impacts of changes to the Law
on Non-Governmental Organizations for Development, which the Guatemalan government
implemented in August 2021.2 The law could be used to criminalize human rights defenders and
CSOs by imposing new registration requirements on CSOs that receive foreign funding.
Specifically, the law prohibits CSO use of foreign funding for "activities that alter public order in national territory." According to the law, an organization that violates this provision will
immediately lose its legal personality and its members are prohibited from joining any other
CSO for no less than two years. What constitutes "altering public order" is undefined, raising
significant implications for freedom of association and assembly. Under the law, CSOs are
required to formally register by February 2022. CSOs attempting to comply with registration
requirements report an opaque and at times arbitrary process. Disconcertingly, there is no
registration category to include CSOs that are specifically mandated to carry out human rights
reporting and advocacy, causing concern among human rights CSOs that their registration may
not be approved or that they may need to significantly alter their operations. We urge the Biden
administration to immediately call for the government of Guatemala to clarify the CSO
registration process and ensure all categories of CSO work, including human rights
reporting and advocacy, are lawful in the country. We urge the Biden administration to
sustain engagement with the government of Guatemala to encourage repeal of harmful
aspects of the Law on Non-Governmental Organizations.

On November 9, 2021 the Salvadoran administration of Nayib Bukele proposed the Foreign
Agents Law.3 If enacted, the law will require CSOs that receive foreign funding to register as
"foreign agents." The law would prohibit registered organizations from any political activities
perceived to be a threat to public order or "endanger or threaten national security" or the "social
and political stability of the country." The law would also give broad discretionary authority to
the Executive branch to fine, press criminal charges against, and revoke operational licenses of
any CSO it determines is not in compliance with the law. The law would also impose a 40
percent tax on funding received by these organizations. After public criticism of the law's
potential impacts, the Bukele government thankfully tabled it after significant international
pressure, including the decision of the German government to temporarily suspend its foreign aid
decisions in response to the proposed law. This development shows that coordinated diplomatic
engagement can have a positive effect on the operational environment of CSOs. However, civil
society in El Salvador continues to report instances of harassment and has expressed concern that
the Foreign Agents Law could be re-introduced in an altered but still harmful form. We urge the
Biden administration to continue robust engagement with the Bukele government and
communicate that open civic space is a key bilateral priority.

A series of congressional decrees signed into law in Honduras in November 2021 infringe on the
freedom of assembly and opinion, make it more difficult for prosecutors to open investigations
into suspected money laundering cases, and create more barriers for CSOs to open and maintain
local bank accounts while increasing their risk of prosecution for legitimate acts of expression
and assembly.4 The incoming Castro government provides the Biden administration with the
opportunity to promote fundamental rights and the importance of civil society for a robust
democracy. We are encouraged that President-elect Castro has committed to protecting the rule of law and human rights and hope repealing these laws will be a focus for her new
administration. We urge the Biden administration to encourage President-elect Castro to
publicly support the work of CSOs and denounce legislation or efforts that would endanger
their work. Further, we urge the Biden administration to encourage the new Castro
administration to work with the legislature to revise and repeal these laws and provisions.

In consultation with civil society and local organizations, we share their concerns that these new
laws reflect a global and regional trend of closing civic space and will impede U.S. government
efforts to support the people of the region. We have seen this play out in Nicaragua with the
impact of the Foreign Agents Act passed by the Nicaraguan government in October 2020, which
cancelled the operational licenses of more than 50 Nicaraguan CSOs, as well as six international
organizations, including those providing humanitarian services to migrant communities,
delivering COVID-19 assistance, supporting LGBTQ communities, and engaging in anticorruption and gender justice work.5 Civil society leaders caution that tactics used by the Ortega
regime are being replicated elsewhere in the region, especially as it relates to the Northern
Triangle. We cannot stand idly by while authoritarian tendencies attack the limited remaining
credible, democratic space operating in the country.

Considering these developments, we urge the Department of State and the United States Agency
for International Development (USAID) to prioritize the protection of civil society in our
bilateral relationships with the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, including
through advocating for greater consultation with civil society and asking for clarity around the
details of the laws addressed above and their implementation. We ask the Department of State
and USAID to urge each government to review and work with legislatures to revise and
repeal any laws and provisions that limit the ability of civil society organizations to carry
out their legitimate activities.

In addition, we urge State and USAID to:

* Consider all flexible and creative legal options for financing and protecting civil society
organizations operating in closed and semi-closed contexts;
* Establish guardrails for flexible and responsive funding to counter potential attacks
against CSOs and protect U.S. assistance;
* Create mechanisms for civil society to continue to do its work in closing spaces,
including collaboration with U.S. government agencies and other international partners;
* Consult with CSOs to investigate how the proposed and enacted regulations impact the
ability of USAID-implementing partners to access funding and conduct their operations,
and to what extent they will impact USAID's ability to direct 25% of assistance to local
partners; and
* Submit a public response outlining State and USAID's engagement with the governments
reflecting that support for functioning civil society is primary to our policy interests and
will impact other foreign assistance and coordination.

Thank you for your strong actions and progress thus far in this challenging landscape. We must
protect the critical work of civil society now, before the forces threatened by advocacy and
transparency eliminate those who carry the mantle of democracy. We stand ready to support you
from Congress.